BOSTON—In the days leading up to the trial accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian American applicants, supporters of the university worried that the group behind the litigation, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), would turn the case into a broader attack on affirmative action and race-based admissions policies. It’s one thing to say the use of race in admissions is negatively affecting a minority group to the benefit of white students, but a completely different thing to say that the advantage is going to other minority groups.
On Monday, the first day of the three-week-long trial, their fears were realized as the plaintiffs presented their opening arguments in a nondescript Boston courtroom. “The future of affirmative action is not on trial,” Adam Mortara, the lead attorney for the plaintiff, said. After all, the Supreme Court has been clear that colleges can consider race in admissions as a way to create a diverse class. But Harvard had gone beyond that, he told Judge Allison Burroughs.
The first 15 minutes of Mortara’s monologue were a broad outline of the ingredients that Harvard uses to judge applicants—among them, academic rating, athletic ability, extracurricular involvement, and personal rating. Students are assigned a score for each characteristic. SFFA alleged—and Harvard disputed—that all these characteristics, besides personal rating, are based on objective markers, such as SAT scores and grades for academic ability. And in every objective category, Asian Americans score higher than white applicants. “What we’re saying is that Asian Americans do better than white applicants on every single objective rating, outside of the subjective personal rating,” Mortara said. The personal rating, he continued, is what is most suspect about the school’s admissions process.